Service-Minded Students Spent Spring Break Helping Immigrants in Rural Midwest

April 2, 2018

As many students across the country flew off to warm tropical beaches and other fun-filled destinations to celebrate their spring break, a small cadre of dedicated Law School students and a Humphrey School graduate student embarked on a six-day road trip to such exotic locales as Le Sueur, Minnesota, and Brookings, South Dakota.

These five intrepid students generously gave up their vacation time to help service the legal needs of immigrants in the rural Midwest. The Law School’s James H. Binger Center for New Americans organized the trip and provided the training.

The participating Law School students were 1Ls Xinge He and Tae Eun Ahn; 3L Chelsea Bodin; and LL.M. student Zakaria Almulhim. Joining them was Benjamin Gronowski, who is in the process of obtaining a master’s degree in human rights at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The Binger Center’s Deepinder Mayell and Kjerstin Yager accompanied them on the trip.

Why did the Center select southwestern Minnesota and South Dakota as the destination for the service trip? “We sought out communities where we knew there was a need for immigrant services,” Mayell explained. “We planned the trip around those areas. The meat-packing and dairy industries are strong out there.”

Highlights of the trip included:

  • assisting detainees being held at the Kandiyohi County Jail in Wilmar, Minnesota and the Nobles County Jail in Worthington, Minnesota;
  • performing legal screenings in Le Sueur, Minnesota, Windom, Minnesota, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Brookings, South Dakota;
  • meeting with ACLU officials at the ACLU’s Mankato, Minnesota office to discuss the work that needs to be done to improve immigrants’ access to justice.

All told, participants provided assistance to 75 families in the community screenings and screened another 24 individuals at the two county jails.

In screening the immigrants, the students took them through a four- or five-page intake form to assess their legal needs, including potential deportation defenses. Afterward, an attorney reviewed the notes and discussed potential options with the immigrant. If there were legal options, the immigrant received a referral. If no defenses were available, immigrants were given helpful safety information, including guidance about dealing with law enforcement. Immigrants also had the opportunity to legally prepare for the consequences of deportation. For example, immigrant parents received help preparing and executing a legal document designating a caretaker for their children in the event the parents were to be deported.

While the Binger Center has coordinated day trips to rural areas to help immigrants before, this was the first multi-day trip. The Binger Center worked hand in hand with other service groups at different points in the trip, including the ACLU, the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, and The Advocates for Human Rights.   

Mayell said the trip was a wonderful and worthwhile experience. “We were able to address a very significant and growing need that’s coming from rural communities where many immigrants live and have a very limited access to services,” he explained. “I was very impressed the way the students were able to handle a very high-stress situation. I think they got a lot of valuable experience that they will be able to use for the rest of their careers.”

Participating students echoed Mayell’s assessment.

“It was really a valuable experience for me,” said 1L He. “I was really moved by the immigrants’ efforts to stay here.” She added that, as an international student herself, she identified with the immigrants and their desire to build a home in the United States. 

1L Ahn said participating in the Binger Center program helped her to empathize with different people who are having difficulties in life.

LL.M. student Almulhim called the trip an “eye-opening experience.” While on the one hand, working with organizations with similar visions was heartening, “on the other hand, it is a little frustrating to see many people in situations that you can’t do anything to help them but to give them simple advice and pray that they stay safe,” he said.

3L Bodin observed, “We had a few exhausting days, but knowing we were advocating for individuals who typically have very limited access to legal services was a constant reminder that we were making a difference. … I did not have a background in immigration law prior to our trip, but I know the knowledge and skills cultivated along the way will serve me well in my career moving forward.”

Mayell also noted that the immigrants were very pleased with the service they received. “People love that we were there,” he said. “They were very grateful and impressed by the team that went out.”

The Binger Center documented the trip on Instagram, including posting poignant video updates using the Instagram “story” function.

“We incorporated social media into this trip as a way to capture our students’ experience working as a legal team,” said Yager, the Binger Center’s education and outreach program coordinator. “A lot of people probably do not immediately think of rural Midwestern communities when they think of immigration, so we wanted to change that image and take followers along for the trip.”

Visit the Law School’s Instagram to see the Binger Center trip posts.

—By Mark A. Cohen

Left to right: Benjamin Gronowski, Xinge He ’20, Zakaria Almulhim LL.M. ’18, Chelsea Bodin ’18, Tae Eun Ahn ’20, Binger Center Education and Outreach Director Deepinder Mayell
Students in March 2018 participating in the Binger Center's Rural Immigrant Access Initiative with Binger Center Executive Director Deepinder Mayell. The successful program has now become the Law School's 25th clinic.

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